How American dream came true for Vietnamese refugee family

I spoke my first words on a boat: "milk", "cockroach" and "itchy". An unusual toddler vocabulary perhaps, but not surprising considering that I spent the second year of my life on a freighter with thousands of other people, a floating petri dish of equal parts vomit, diarrhoea, desperation and hope. Every inch of that boat teemed with refugees: the cargo hull, hallways and deck. Even the captain's steering room had ceased to be a sanctuary.

I am an immigrant from Vietnam. I left the land of my birth in 1978 - just shy of my first birthday - and arrived in the United States a few weeks after I turned two. All of us on that boat, and hundreds of thousands of others, fled for the same reason: to escape the communist regime. It took us more than one year to arrive in the US, most of that time spent on an overpacked freightship smuggling 2,300 other refugees in a cargo hull full of festering flour and one functioning restroom.

Like many ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, my family members were merchants. My maternal grandma, who had fled to Vietnam from British-held Hong Kong as a teenager to escape the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, had a fabric stall at Saigon's Ben Thanh Market. My dad had a factory that manufactured shampoo and detergent.

After the Vietnam War officially ended in April 1975 with the fall of South Vietnam to the Northern Vietnamese communists, the new regime stripped our family of their livelihood, confiscating our family businesses and much of our savings. They also introduced a series of new currencies - each time capping the sum families were permitted to exchange. Anyone found with more was punished, the money confiscated.

Years later, my grandma would tell of counting her life savings, exchanging the maximum allowed, and burning the remainder. She described watching her tears fall into the flames as the money burned; just burning and crying, because what else was there to do?

Early in 1977, the year before we fled Vietnam, my mum was six months pregnant with me, and my father was in jail for "unpatriotic acts" after commissioning the building of a small junk boat he'd hoped to use for our escape. My mum visited my dad in his cell so he could help name me. He must have had money on his mind, as my name translated means Gold and Jade.

My grandfather had just passed away, but my maternal grandma still had five kids at home to raise. She was just under 1.5m on a tall day and a breadwinning matriarch before her time. She negotiated an escape route for us on that Panamanian freightship, but it would come at a steep cost.

There were 19 of us in my nuclear and extended family. Passage on the ship was purchased through luong, 1.2-ounce, 24-karat gold bars. All told, 154 luong - more than US$135,000 (S$184,000) in today's dollars - were required to smuggle my family out of Vietnam. Those bars were the culmination of a lifetime of work, coated with love and stamped with faith, moulded into 24 karats of black market gold. Which is how we found ourselves part of the mass exodus that would come to be known as the "Vietnamese Boat People".

After being denied entry at the ports of Hong Kong, Indonesia and Brunei for temporary asylum, we floated aimlessly at sea, waiting. My mum watched over my two-year- old brother and me while we all sat atop a small table. Another family lived in a permanent crouch underneath. All around us, families staked their claim to plots of floor, sleeping upright, backs propping up backs. If someone needed to do their business or go in search of food, family members would stand vigil over the hard-won territory. Somehow, even as we were reduced to human freight, the framework of family held, in the form of "go s***, I got your back".

Eventually our freighter docked in the Philippines, but we were not allowed to disembark - all the existing camps were full. After a full 10 months at sea we were finally transferred to a makeshift refugee camp on a Philippine island. My mum set me on the ground to roam and was pleased to discover that I could run.

At the camp, my parents and extended family underwent an arduous vetting process, including background checks and physical screenings with blood tests. Then came the search for a sponsoring country. A refugee who could claim a relative in another country was given priority there. Barring that, where you wound up was a crapshoot by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

My parents, my brother and I lingered in this system for several months until a church group in Minnesota agreed to sponsor us. In one fell swoop, we were whisked from the humidity of the tropics to the sub-zero temperatures of a midwestern December. The commitment and logistics of sponsoring and providing for a refugee family are significant, so the church group shared the responsibilities for clothing, sheltering and integrating us into American life. One group of volunteers met us at the airport with donated second-hand winter jackets. Other volunteers helped us find and furnish a small two-bedroom home in the suburbs, while still others worked on getting sponsorship for the rest of our family, until all 19 of us were reunited.

Our family also relied on public social programmes as we adjusted and assimilated into American society. My parents enrolled my brother and me in a Head Start preschool while they studied English, passed the GED (general educational development tests), and took job training classes. For a year or so, we lived on welfare and food stamps, supplemented by baffling large blocks of bright orange government cheese.

Within two years, my mum spoke English well enough to take a job in a bank, the start of a 30-year career that became our modest family livelihood.

When it came time for my brother and me to think about college, we benefited from the expectation of our family that we would go. We had as role models close relatives who had recently graduated. But we also relied on programmes such as need-based grants, low-interest loans and work-study schemes.

We hear so much talk about individual resilience, self-reliance and the proverbial bootstraps being the ingredients of the American Dream, and I'd like to think my family exhibited those traits in our extraordinary journey.

But there is a lot more that goes into the American Dream's promise of providing people an opportunity to improve their lives and to contribute to this great nation. Nothing exists in a vacuum, after all, and certainly not opportunity. We all rely on the springboard provided by our extended families, our communities (like those church volunteers in Minnesota who made our American story possible) and, yes, government-backed immigration policies and programmes like those that let us enter, fed us, and then helped us get an education.

Now, more than three decades and a generation after fleeing Vietnam, my youngest child has just turned two - the age I was when I arrived in the US. Her first words? "Milk", "mama" and "dada".

• Kim Luu works in the environmental sustainability field in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and two children. This article first appeared in Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'How American dream came true for Vietnamese refugee family'. Print Edition | Subscribe